April 11, 2006

Potluck on campus

We gathered in a room off the library, an intimate space with comfy chairs and movable tables. Sixteen of us altogether: faculty members from the hard sciences and from the humanities, some grad students, a librarian, a staff member, and four of my undergraduate students whom I had invited to be part of the discussion. Two of the women brought small children, who went outside to play on the quad while we talked. We brought food of course, mostly in casserole dishes and plastic containers. I never have time to make anything for potlucks (and I knew my students would not have time either) but I did my usual run to the Chinese take-out place for broccoli with garlic sauce.

PlantsWoman told her story, how she gave up some of her emotional and spiritual connection to plants during the academic process of getting a science degree, and how she went back years later, after many peer-reviewed publications, after tenure, after acceptance by the academy, she went back to claim what she had given up – and began again to learn plants not with just her mind but with her heart and spirit and body. She stayed a scientist, she never gave up her love of botany, but she began to reclaim the idea she could be a poet as well. And she took back the parts of her native heritage she had given up to be accepted by the academy. We talked about how narrow the academy can be, especially a male-dominated institution like science, and how difficult it can be for someone who is other to enter that space.

So often diversity efforts focus on helping our incoming students to change to fit the field of science. We talked about ways that science might change to be more accepting of different ideas and cultures and ways of thinking. And how that sort of diversity would benefit science. One at a time, people around the table began to speak up, adding their voice, and together we talked about ways to make room, make space, for students who are from different backgrounds.

We did not come up with any vision statement or bold proclamation, no rules to be written down in white and black. We simply talked -- sharing ideas, forming relationships with each other. I have faith in this process, the way that change can begin when we connect with other people, talking about what we think is important, telling our stories. These kind of meetings, potlucks usually, in someone’s home or a public space, help shape who I am and what I do with my students. Parts of me get shifted and turned by these conversations, helping me to figure out how I can change the institution that I have – albeit reluctantly – become part of.

11 comments:

Jenevieve said...

Very, very cool.

Yankee T said...

This is why you need to go teach at Massachusetts Womens College In Cool Town so Older Daughter can have you for her prof and mentor. Please? I'm begging you. There's plenty of snow there.

sp said...

Jo(e) - I'm really curious about what a small science college means, and whether you have any science background yourself. I guess I'll go diggin around in the archives some day!

At any rate, your discussion sounds fabulous It also reminds me of this article about how science could change to accept more "feminine" scientists (I know, it sounds terrible, but actually I think the article is fairly good). It calls for the academy to consider traits that you seem to possess, a nurturing, team-oriented approach as potentially successful ones (in addition to comeptitiveness and self promotion) in all new hires (women and men). And I think it would work. It's exactly the kind of attitude change that would be good for science.

jo(e) said...

sp: Send me an email, and I'll tell you what college I'm at. My background is literature, although I took quite a few science courses as an undergraduate, and science literature is one of my interests. One thing that frustrated me when I went to college was that I felt forced to choose between the hard sciences and the humanities. I like working at a college where I am surrounded by scientists and students who are studying science. I am in the department of Environmental Studies, an interdisciplinary department.

I couldn't get your link to work, but it sounds like you are pointing to exactly the kind of thing we are talking about. Science as an institution has long perpetuated norms that are "masculine" rather than "feminine." (I put the words in quotes to indicat that I am talking about traits that are socially and politically constructed, not biological.) Some scientists are beginning to argue that science itself -- the institution -- needs to change and that science can benefit from diversity.

Friday Mom said...

The same arguments are being directed toward theology. They have been for decades, now, but one of the biggest hurdles I've yet to see overcome is exactly what you named here: the changing of the institution to welcome diversity and be shaped by it, instead of understanding how minority voices are different so that it's clear how to change them. I would love to see more of the kind of dialogue you are talking about. It requires a great deal of humility, though, to listen and be shaped by what you hear.

sp said...

Jo(e) - Duh, I both added the wrong url in my comment AND forgot how to work the tag (I was not yet through my first cup of coffee!). The link to the PLOS article is here. I double checked it and it's right.

And I think I'm the opposite of you, or at least my college exprience mirrored yours. I was a science major very interested in the humanities. I toyed with the idea of minoring in Classics or in Women Studies. I took lots of classes on those topics, but in the end I sold out to the estabilshment and took the minor in Chemistry that my major required me to get. Sadness.

I'll be emailing you soon (thanks!) - I'm curious to know about your career path and so forth (since I'm applying for jobs right now).

jo(e) said...

sp: Oh, that's interesting. The article you link to is actually talking about differences between women and men that are rooted in biology. Of course, I suppose in the long run, it doesn't matter why individuals are different -- whether the differences come from nurture or nature -- if we agree that many professions such as science and theology could benefit from diversity, from varied skill sets and ways of thinking, and that figuring out how to make those fields more accepting of different individuals is our goal.

jo(e) said...

Friday Mom: It seems to me that the battles might be even tougher with theology. Most academics seem to at least accept the idea that having a more diverse group of students might be a good thing for science -- even if they don't know how to go about making this happen. But I know churches -- well, the Roman Catholic Church, for example -- in which the leadership does not even seem to see the lack of diversity as a problem.

listmaker said...

A timely post, jo(e); part of my husband's new job will be addressing the academic needs of female graduate students in the sciences.

ScienceWoman said...

Oh how I wish I could have been part of the conversation.

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